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Reason Foundation

Rethinking Checked-Baggage

Robert Poole and Viggo Butler
July 1, 2002

Executive Summary

Current law mandates that all checked bags at 429 passenger airports be screened by explosive detection systems (EDS) or alternative means by December 31, 2002. Because it will not be possible for manufacturers to produce the number of EDS machines required by that date, nor for airports to design and build the major facility modifications that would be needed, the Transportation Security Administration has called for an interim approach using a combination of EDS and explosive trace detection (ETD) machines. Both the original mandate and this interim approach to meeting it are seriously flawed.

EDS is a flawed technology. Its error rate (false-positives) is nearly 30 percent, and its throughput is a low 150-200 bags per hour under real-world conditions. Meeting the 100 percent inspection requirement solely with EDS, when taking into account peak-load conditions, machine down-time, and other constraints, would require over 6,000 machines, at a total cost of $12 billion ($6 billion for machines and $6 billion for facility modifications). TSA’s proposed alternative—ETD—is even slower than EDS, and is much more laborintensive. An all-ETD system would cost $3 billion, would require 50,000 people to operate, and would require more space than an all-EDS system. The only other approved alternatives—hand search and dogsearch —are also slow and very labor-intensive.

TSA’s estimated budget for this year is $8 billion—to cover all security threats to all modes of transportation. It will soon become part of a $37 billion Department of Homeland Security, which will address all domestic security threats. To focus up to $12 billion on inspecting airline baggage seems hugely disproportionate, given the enormity of the task of defending this country against terrorism here at home.

Congress should revisit the baggage-inspection issue, drawing on the experience of Europe and Israel, which have many years of experience in dealing with terrorist threats to aviation. The two key points guiding this rethinking are:

In the technology area, Congress should appoint a Blue-Ribbon Committee to provide technical expertise to TSA in the airport security field. This committee should review new baggage-inspection technology that is coming into use, or being approved for use, in Europe. Some of that technology appears to offer a better combination of performance and cost than EDS and ETD for mass-baggage screening, at least on an interim basis. But the committee should also recommend high-priority investments in research and development on advanced explosive-detection technologies that could replace the current generation of EDS machines.

Congress should also mandate a shift of focus in baggage and passenger inspection, making the detection of high-risk people the guiding principle. That means using the computer-assisted passenger pre-screening (CAPPS) system and a registered traveler program to sort passengers into at least three different risk groups—and matching baggage-inspection technologies appropriately to each group. Slow and costly technologies like EDS and ETD would be used for all passengers in the highest risk groups and on an onexception basis for others. As in Europe, baggage processing would involve several tiers or levels, with all bags going through relatively high-speed Level 1 inspection, but only questionable bags or those from highrisk passengers going on to Level 2 or Level 3 inspection.

To implement these changes, Congress would have to take the following steps:

  1. Extend the deadline for 100 percent checked-baggage inspection to December 2004;
  2. Have TSA approve a shift to a multi-tiered (in-line) baggage inspection system;
  3. Create a Blue-Ribbon Commission on airport security technology to make recommendations on both immediate and medium-term R&D investments; and
  4. Encourage FAA to certify additional baggage-inspection technologies for implementation between now and December 2004, such as some of those approved for use in Europe.

Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy

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